Finland saw a record number of asylum seekers come to the country last year. These 32,500 people that traveled far from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, have found temporary housing in asylum reception centers. Who watches over, never mind defends, their rights?
Like there are many types of people there are as well many types of asylum reception centers. Some do a good job with their limited resources while others, like Luona, a private company, receive a lot of complaints.
Luona, which is a subsidiary of Barona, houses 3,000 asylum seekers at its reception centers in Helsinki, Espoo, and Vantaa. Paavo Voutilainen, Luona’s director of the board, is a former Helsinki social manager who got fired for infringement of duties.
Luona’s web page claims that it strives to take into account the person’s background, special needs, and dignity.
Two politicians sit on Luona’s board: former MP Ulpu Iivari of the Social Democratic Party and National Coalition Party MP Sanna-Liisa Lauslahti.
Business is booming these days for Luona thanks to the crisis in the Middle East. Some estimates claim that the state pays the company 40 euros a day per each asylum seeker, or about 1,500 euros a month. The total annual cost amounts to about 35 million euros.
Luona has been the center of controversy. In early January, an Afghani asylum seeker died of a brain hemorrhage. Did Luona do enough to avoid the death of the Afghani? Was their inadequate treatment? We don’t know.
There hasn’t been an independent investigation to clear up the matter.
Another source of complaint by asylum seekers is their poor and humiliating treatment by Luona. One of them told Migrant Tales that they are treated like livestock.
Asylum seekers have legal protection in Finland thanks to international agreements that are specified in the so-called reception center law, or vastaanottolaki (746/2011). According to article 9 of the law, it’s the Finnish Immigration Service (FIS) that is responsible for supervising the country’s reception centers.
Probably one of the biggest questions surrounding the regulation of these reception centers is how effectively this is done by FIS to ensure the best treatment possible of asylum seekers under the circumstances.
Other factors that impact how asylum seekers are treated at these centers is the anti-immigration atmosphere of Finland. How many politicians are willing to risk their political necks for these people? Very few.
This may explain in part why no major Finnish media has written a comprehensive story about the lives of these people and how they are treated at these reception centers.
Asylum reception centers
“Luona isn’t interested in the welfare of the asylum seekers but in maximizing profits,” a source said. “The job of those that work for the company is to not inform and help these asylum seekers but ensure that they remain passive and don’t cause any trouble.”
The source claimed that those asylum seekers that start demanding their rights or complain too much are transferred to other reception centers “for security reasons” as Mohamed Saleh Muhsi’s case proves (see box story).
Not only does Luona economize on the backs of the asylum seekers they are supposed to serve, the company doesn’t even bother to offer them minimal information about the law and social customs of Finland. “Asylum seekers have to figure out almost everything by themselves, even how to shop and where to buy bus tickets,” the source continued. “There are no talks given to men about what sexual harassment is since it costs money.”
Finding qualified employees who have experience working in a culturally diverse workplace with asylum seekers who speak Arabic, Farsi or other languages is another big challenge for Luona. Racist treatment and attitudes by the staff and security guards are the rules, not the exception, according to the source.
“Some employees show their dislike of asylum seekers and make it clear to them with their attitude and treatment that they aren’t welcome in Finland or at the reception center,” the source continued. “This type of behavior is not only reinforced by the management but by the anti-immigration atmosphere in Finland, arson attacks against other centers and the racism you find too commonly on social media.”
Bland and poor-quality food served at Luona’s reception centers are other sources of near-constant complaints by asylum seekers.
“Apart from not having a basic idea or care what people are accustomed to eating,” the source continued, “some asylum seekers prefer to go hungry than eat the food served to them. They’re not even allowed to take their uneaten meals to their rooms. This means that a lot of food at the reception centers is thrown away.”
Life for asylum seekers isn’t made easier either by the fact that they cannot have water cookers in their rooms. Luona justifies this rule because they consider water cookers a safety risk. Tea, like coffee for Finns, is an important social drink for Middle Easterners that helps them relax and cope.
After nine in the evening, nobody is allowed to drink tea.
One asylum seeker said that there is very little variation in the food served by Luona: chicken nuggets and rice, vegetables, meatballs and rice, beetroot, carrot soup and fish soup. The salad portions are served without any dressing. Breakfast come in a small bag and has 2-3 slices of bread, a slice of cheese, yogurt and a small fruit like an apple.
“One way that asylum seekers feed themselves is by boiling potatoes and eggs in water cookers,” the source continued. “But if they are caught doing so in their room the guard confiscates the water cooker.”
Management, employees and security guards
With so many problems and complaints at Luona’s reception centers, it shouldn’t surprise us that there are similar complaints concerning the management, staff, and security guards.
“Just because a person isn’t qualified doesn’t mean that he cannot be a nice and understanding person to asylum seekers,” another source said. “Too many of the employees, irrespective if they are Finnish or foreigners, don’t seem to care enough and simply don’t want to be bothered. Should we be surprised if the management doesn’t care?”
While there are poor examples of how the staff treats the asylum seekers there are good ones as well. Some employees buy with their own money clothes and other items even if the company prohibits them from becoming friends, according to the source.
The use of excessive force and abusing their authority are other issues that were cited. Migrant Tales confirmed that some security guards, like some employees, treat the asylum seekers in a racist and disrespectful manner. It’s nothing uncommon to hear from them racist jokes and the use of foul language in Arabic, English, and Finnish like vittu.
“Because some of these managers and security guards don’t want to be bothered at work, they instead call the police because they’re too lazy or incompetent to solve a problem,” said another source. “If the police arrive they usually take the person to the police station and lock them up [one of these for 15 hours for no reason]. This is unfortunate because many of the problems at the center could be solved without involving the police.”
Some security guards have been caught as well distributing videos on Facebook and sending SMS messages to their friends when the police handcuff an asylum seeker.
Medical, dental attention and overcrowding
In Finland reception centers are supposed to provide to asylum seekers minimal medical and dental care.
Migrant Tales spoke to an asylum seeker who was staying at the same reception center where the young Afghani died in early January. One of the nurses that treat asylum seekers commonly asks the patients if they’re going to die? If their answer is no then she says there’s no need to go to the hospital.
Not sending an asylum seeker to the hospital permits Luona to save money. If a person is sent to a hospital and medication is prescribed, it’s the company that has to pay for the drugs. If an asylum seeker buys a non-prescription painkiller like Burana he has to pay it himself.
“Medical attention costs money and in order to keep costs at a minimal people are discouraged from visiting a hospital,” the source said. “Different health care officials at Luona are said to compete against each other to keep ‘a clean’ list of patients that weren’t sent to the hospital. This saves money for the company and it’s encouraged by Luona.”
“Apart from health issues like heart conditions, heart attacks, strokes, contagious lung diseases and two tuberculosis cases [at one of Luona’s reception centers],” the source continued, “many Iraqi asylum seekers need dental care and are told to buy Burana for their pain.”
Items like soap, detergent, clothes and other necessities have to be paid by the asylum seeker.
Asylum seekers at Luona’s reception centers are paid by the state 92.30 euros a month. On some occasions, such payment has been made forty days late. Nobody knows why payment is made late to the asylum seekers.
Crowded quarters are another issue at Luona’s reception centers. Apart from seven adults sleeping in a small room, some don’t even have a room and must sleep in open spaces and hallways of the building. The little privacy they get is provided with a bed sheet that works as a temporary wall.
The best way to clear matters up would be an independent investigation to find out what really happens at Luona’s reception centers. FIS should be the first to know.
Contrary to other reception centers in Finland, visitors and relatives aren’t allowed to visit asylum seekers at Luona’s centers.